Tag Archives: Prayer

How TO wait during hard times [First Sunday of Advent, part 5]

7 Dec

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

In this series of posts on the Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent 2019, we’ve been learning how to wait during hard times.  In the previous post about the fourth reading, Luke 21:25-36, we heard from Jesus how NOT to wait.  Now we continue in that passage, and Jesus teaches the proper way to wait.

We can summarize Jesus’ teaching as: watch out in prayer.  When we are struggling with pain, anxiety, and God seems far away, and our world seems to be crumbling around us, Jesus says our response should be watchful prayer.  Jesus mentions two requests we should pray for: escape and stand.  The word “escape” is not to be understood as fleeing or running away, but as avoidance.  It is okay to pray, “God please don’t let me go through this.”  Jesus himself prayed that very thing before he went to the cross! God might say, “Ok…I will take that away.”  But God might not.  He didn’t take the cross away from Jesus.  This is when the second prayer request is so important. Stand.  And in particular Jesus says, “stand before the Son of Man,” which is him.  What he is referring to is that we are praying for strength to stand in the midst of trial and pain, to stand in such a way that we remain faithful to Jesus. 

When we are going through hard times, our response should be pray.  Pray for the difficulty to be taken away, but if it is not taken away, pray that God will strengthen us to remain faithful.

Here we can look to Jesus as our model.  Constantly we see him, especially in the Gospel of Luke, getting away for prayer. In Matthew 6 he tells us to go into our closet and pray.  That’s what Jesus did.  It might not have been a literal closet for Jesus, but it had the same effect when he went all by himself on a mountain to be alone with God. I don’t have a prayer closet, but I do like to find a quiet room in the church.  Often I walk into the dark sanctuary, sit in the front and pray.  Sometimes like Brother Lawrence, I pray while washing dishes, seeking to have a conversation with God all day like Lawrence did.

We need to learn to get away from our phones, from TV, from the internet, from people, and spend time sitting in God’s presence. 

I know waiting can be so hard.  But the one place we will find the strength to watch for Jesus and be faithful for his return is the place of sitting in his presence.  It might be while you are driving, and you turn off the radio or the podcast, and you just talk with God and listen for him.  It might be while you are exercising, and you remove the headphones from your ears, turn off the music and listen.  Or maybe you keep the headphones in and listen to music that helps you pray!   Or maybe an app that guides you into listening to God.  It might be in the quietness of the morning before people awake, or after they have gone to bed.  It might be on lunch break in the park, in your car, in the bathroom.  As we saw in Deuteronomy 18, God says that we need to learn to listen to Jesus. 

When we listen, when we bask in his presence, we find strength to remain faithful, even in the dark times, even in the waiting.

Watch, and pray, the days are coming.  Maybe for some of you, the days are here.  You are living through pain right now.  Maybe for some of you those days are coming.  What is your practice of prayer?  Do you need to increase the time you spend in prayer?  Do you need to spend time working on the quality of your prayer? 

Anthony Bloom, in his book Beginning to Pray, gave an illustration that really hit home with me.  He said, consider your relationship with your spouse or significant other or maybe even a close friend.  What would that relationship be like if the sum total of your communication with that person was you going up to them for five minutes each day, pulling out a list of stuff you want them to do, running down the list, and saying, “Great talk.  Please do all that for me.  Talk with you tomorrow.”  The next day, you do the same talk again.  Sometimes you skip days, thinking very little of it, but when you resume talking to that person, it is more of the same, your five minute wish list.  And that’s it.  How would that relationship go?  It would fail very fast. 

When I was on sabbatical, and I was learning about listening to God, that story really convicted me.  I started practicing listening prayer.  But I will tell you that since I have been back from sabbatical, with the busyness of life, it is so easy to think, I don’t have time for listening to God.  Jesus reminds us in Luke 21 that nothing is more important.  Right before he was about to encounter the most momentous event of his life, which was his crucifixion, you’d think he would be taking every last second to teach his disciples, to help prepare them for what was coming, give them tools to succeed. But he doesn’t.  Instead he prays.  At the moment of crisis Jesus is praying.

How can we be a people of prayer?  Are you in a moment of crisis?  Are you praying, listening for the voice of God, basking in his presence?  If this resonates with you, but you are not sure where to begin, I recommend that you read Bloom’s book, and another one called Into The Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.  Study those books.  Then find your closet, watch and pray.

What can satisfy the soul? part 4 (the drastic action needed)

25 Oct
Image result for destroy a tv

We started this series of posts looking at satisfying videos, thankful for them, but noting that they cannot satisfy the soul.  We talk about our phones yesterday and how they promise so much, but they, too, don’t satisfy the deepest longings of our souls.  What can satisfy the soul?  We found one answer: only God can satisfy.  We found that Moses tells the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 12 to take dramatic action to make sure they find their satisfaction in God alone. That dramatic action carries on into chapter 13.  We’re not going to read chapter 13, but instead we’re going to look at its structure.

In chapter 13, Moses talks about three groups of people.

  1. Prophets who teach false gods in verses 1-5.
  2. Family members who teach false gods in verses 6-11.
  3. Wicked towns who teach worship of false gods in verse 12-18.

And what does God say the people should do to each of these three groups? Eliminate them.

In chapters 16:21-17:7 this theme continues. “Purge the evil from among you.” These are brutal passages, I know.  God is talking about stoning people, totally destroying them, even people from within one’s own family.  It raises up inside some of us those difficult questions about violence in the Old Testament and why God would ever command that kind of purge.

I listened to an Old Testament scholar recently remark that when he hears concerns about the violence in the Old Testament, it is often from people who have ingested probably hundreds of hours watching violent movies and television shows, and they seem not to have a problem with that media.  The scholar makes a good point about the irony or possibly hypocrisy of people who would be disgusted with violence in Deuteronomy 13 on Sunday morning, only to go and choose to spend money watching a violent film that same afternoon. 

But one might respond, “Wait a minute, in those violent films, it is not God doing the violence, but in Deuteronomy 13 it is.”  Is it, though?  Or is God responding with loving protection for his people?

We can hardly imagine what it was like in ancient pagan cultures, and for those with a slave mentality. We simply have to go back to the fact that a nation of slaves needs to have a dramatic and decisive kind of protection, and that could require total elimination of all evil influences, even from within the nation and from within one’s own family.  Can’t stomach it?  Me neither. I don’t like Deuteronomy 13 at all.  I’m glad we live in a different time and under a different covenant.

We need to remind ourselves that what we are reading is God’s covenant treaty with Israel, and it is not for us.  We are under the New Covenant, and we are not bound to follow the rules of the Old Covenant. We need to hear that clearly. These rules are not for us. 

So is there any principle from Deuteronomy 13, 16 and 17, that can carry over to those of us under the New Covenant?  I think there is!

Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5?  “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to lust, gouge it out.”  Now was Jesus speaking literally?  When I mentioned this live in my sermon, I asked everyone to hold up their hands.  I didn’t see any chopped off hands or gouged out eyes.  If we were taking Jesus literally, there should have been  some evidence of chopping and gouging!  We are right not to take Jesus literally, as he was using figurative language to make a point. Jesus was saying “Take drastic action.”

We simply must be lovingly, graciously, restoratively concerned for purity and holiness in our own lives and in a church family.  And we must take dramatic action to get there. Ask yourselves the question: what dramatic action in your life in order to pursue God’s ways? What are strongholds that you need to destroy?  What are your high places? 

Media? Sports? Addictions?

Are you trying to find satisfaction in your life from sources that cannot satisfy? Much of media and sports are neutral.  I’m thankful the Redskins have what looks to be a somewhat competitive team this year. I also enjoy a number of television shows. But those things cannot provide satisfaction, except temporarily.  Our inner selves are longing for something more, and God knows this.  He instructs the Israelites to worship him only, and not other false gods, because those false gods cannot satisfy.

He instructs Israel to worship him in his ways.  Not in their ways.  God has their best interest in mind.  He wants to preserve their newfound freedom.  He wants them to enjoy the abundance of the Promised Land.  God also is a God of justice, as we saw a few weeks ago, and he wants to eradicate the unjust and detestable practices found in foreign lands, and to do all that, Israel must stay true to him.  They must find their satisfaction in him, and not be lured into the false religion of the powerful, unjust nations around them. 

I encourage you examine your own life.  What will it look like for you to pursue finding satisfaction of your deepest desires in God alone?  What do you need to stop?  And what do you need to start? Do you spend time with God?  Do you need to open up space in your life to drink deeply from the well of his Word, of listening for his voice in prayer?

What can satisfy the soul? part 3 (can your phone?)

24 Oct
Photo by Stephen Petrey on Unsplash

Our smartphones promise so much.  Can they satisfy the soul?  Take note today how often you use yours, and lift up your eyes and observe how often other people are on their phones.  The first iPhone came out in June 2007, and in 12 years smartphones have swept the globe, with about one-third of every human using one.  In the USA, research finds that 95% of all Americans have a cell phone, and 77% have a smartphone!  Get this: in the 18-29 demographic, 94% use smartphones, and 100% have a cellphone.  100%!  Even if the actual percentage is 99.5% and they just rounded up, these stats paint an astounding picture of phone adoption rates.  And it happened fast!  From 2011 to 2018, smartphone use by Americans increased from 35% to 77%.  Is there any question that we love our smartphones?  What does this say about us and our inner longings?  What does this say about what we worship?  All week long we have been looking at Deuteronomy 12, seeking to answer the question: what can satisfy the soul?  Can our phones?  Let’s continue into Deuteronomy 12 to find out.

We saw yesterday in part 2 that God must be the focus of our worship. Moses goes on in Deuteronomy 12, describing to Israel how this worship of Yahweh is to occur in verses 15-28.  There are lots of sacrifices and blood and I encourage you to read that at some point.  In this post, however, we are going to jump to verses 29-32 where Moses summarizes his theme again. Take a moment and read that.

He says, “Do not worship like the people around you worship, as it is detestable.”  Look at verse 31: “They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”  Human sacrifice, God says, is totally detestable.  This is a major way that Yahweh was different from other gods of the nations around Israel.  There are actually many ways that Yahweh and his expectation for the people of Israel was different, and we’ve seen some of those ways already in our study through Deuteronomy.  Here are some examples: He chose Israel, a weak, slave nation, rather than picking one of the powerful nations.  He wanted to be a loving close relationship with them, rather than to be distant from them.  He was deeply concerned that they, a nation of slaves, be protected and provided for, so they could be transformed into a life of freedom and flourishing.  When they messed up, and they disobeyed him, he was gracious and forgiving.  All of these characteristics of Yahweh are strikingly different from the other Ancient Near Eastern gods.  Now here we see another distinction, as Yahweh is concerned about human life, in particular wanting to eradicate the horrible practice of human sacrifice.  In the Ancient Near East, ritual human sacrifice was all too common, and Yahweh wanted it abolished.

Do you think there might be worship practices in our culture that God would find detestable?  We’ve already talked about the possibility that Israel had a deep-seated slave mentality that could lead to them to be tempted to worship the gods of the powerful nations around them.  It is hard for us to imagine Israel seriously considering false worship to the point of engaging in human ritual sacrifice.  But God is right to be concerned about this, knowing that his people are so easily lured away.  There was a deep dissatisfaction in their souls, and God knew that it would be attractive to Israel to attempt to fill that longing by worshiping like the nations around them.  Could the same be said of us? Let’s be humble and teachable as well, considering the possibility that we, too, might engage in false worship, trying to satisfy our souls.  No, Christians are not sacrificing infants, but we would do well to ask if there are any practices of false worship that might be tempting us?

It begs the question: What is true worship? What worship does God desire of us?  To show up at church worship services, sing songs, pray, and listen to a sermon?  Does God want us to perform religious rituals like communion?  Before we identify false worship, let’s first make sure we clearly define the worship God desires.  Worship that God desires is celebrating, rejoicing and honoring him, and not just in a ceremony for one hour, but through a life of following him and obeying his ways.  Worship that God desires is a life of making things right in the world.  Worship includes battling injustice in society, healing brokenness in relationships, serving God, and pursuing the mission of his Kingdom.  And you know where that starts?  Giving our hearts to him. Finding our satisfaction in him.  There are plenty of times where God would say that Israel was doing all kinds of sacrifices, fasting, and rituals, but he said it was worthless to him because their hearts were far from him.  In those moments, they showed they were not satisfied in God alone.

And so where are our hearts?  The shocking message of false worship, God says, is that any worship can become false worship if our hearts are not satisfied in God.  The music and the sermon might be wonderfully faithful to God and his Word, but if we are not satisfied in God alone, we can be tempted to desire those worship elements to satisfy us.  One way to discover if our hearts are not satisfied in God alone is to evaluate our reaction to worship services.  If the are “not up to par” or “boring” or if we have a critical spirit about them, or if we think or say, “I didn’t get fed” about a sermon, then it could be our hearts are far from God. 

I will admit that sometimes, my heart is all about is sitting on our sofa, phone in hand, scrolling through the app store trying to find a new cool app that will make my life better.  I think I want to get the most out of this phone that I am paying for every month. Like going to the buffet.  I want to go there and eat all day long to get the biggest bang for my buck. 

And yet what is really going on beneath the surface?  I think a new phone app, or lots of great food, will satisfy me or fulfill me, and make my life better.

But that is a lie!  When I went on sabbatical, I got rid of Facebook and games on my phone, and it literally felt like an emotional ripping away, but you know what? It made my life better!  Instead of escaping to social media land or a phone game, which I did way too much, I tried to read a book or focus on my family, or pray.  And that prayer was the major change.  I tried to learn to sit in God’s presence and hear his voice.  I tried to learn to be satisfied in him.

What I found is that it wasn’t my smartphone that was the problem.  In fact, while I removed a bunch of distracting apps, I went on the install a handful of prayer apps that have been incredibly helpful in pointing my heart to God. 

We simply cannot find our satisfaction in anything but God.  And that is what God is saying to Israel, “you will not find your satisfaction in worshiping those other gods, or like they worship.”  True satisfaction can be found only in God.

So follow the teaching of Yahweh, in Deut. 12:2 – take dramatic action, break down the altars to the things in your life through which you are seeking to satisfy your soul.  Delete the apps, cancel the subscription.  Is there music, movies, books, or something else holding you back?  An addictive habit?  Let it burn.  Tear down those strongholds.  Take dramatic action.  Find your satisfaction in God alone, because only he can satisfy the longings of our souls.

How to grow your love for God, part 3 (dealing with our fears)

17 Oct
Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

What do you fear?  Even if you are the kind of person who is not afraid of hardly anything, do you have concerns?  What bothers you?  Maybe your personality really struggles with fears.  I’ve talked in a previous post about my own struggles with anxiety. I’ve come to realize I have triggers: health and financial concerns, home repairs, and difficult relational situations can all intensify my struggle with fear and anxiety.  I’ve learned that it can be hard to love God in the midst of fear.  As we continue this series studying Deuteronomy 11, we’ve seen in the previous two posts that Moses is encouraging the people to grow their love for God.  If you haven’t read them, you might consider doing so, as they set the context for what we are going to study in this post.  Moses addresses a significant concern about loving God in the midst of fear. 

It seems that Deuteronomy 11 has 7 sections, and in the first three, Moses has been very positive.  But that positive tone changes in Section 4.  Look at verses 16-17.

The thing he wants them to do? In verse 16, he says, “do not to turn away from God or worship other gods.”  Warning! Red flag.

And why does he not want them to turn away from God? Moses is pretty clear.  In verse 17, he warns them, “then God will be angry and will not send rain, and you will not have food, and worse, you will perish from the Land.”

Yikes. Things just got negative.  But notice that this is the shortest section.  Moses doesn’t dwell on it.  He emphasizes the blessings, the positives, as he was a good leader like that.  No scare tactics here.  No heaping guilt.  But he does have to make them aware of the truth.  They need to be informed of what will happen if they turn away.  If they turn away from God, it will be disastrous for them.  This is some needed accountability.

But Moses doesn’t hammer on this.  Instead, he wants them to love and obey God, so he fills their hearts and minds with the many good reasons for following God’s way.  Thus, quickly, he returns to another positive section.

The fifth section is found in verses 18-21.

What is the thing he wants them to do? In verse 18, he has some practical advice about the commands of God.  He says, “fix these words in your hearts and minds.”

Why does he want them to do this?  He explains his reasoning in verses 19-21, “Teach them to your children…so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land.”

While this is the only section in which he doesn’t mention the word “commands”, that is what he wants them to fix to their hearts and minds.  When he uses the word “fix”, he is not referring to fixing something that is broken.  He is using “fix” in the sense of affixing something, putting something securely in place.  Those commands of God, and the ideas of loving God, serving him with all your heart and soul, those things should be fixed securely in place in your lives.  When you do that, he says, as he has said numerous times, the people will be fixed securely in the land for a long, long time.  Remember the axiom we talked about at the beginning of this series?  “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  Do you see how what Moses is saying in this section might relate to that?  Before we go any further making that connection, we have a few more sections of Deuteronomy 11 to work through.  Keep following these posts, as we’ll discuss “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” soon!  For now, let’s take a look at Section 6.

If you’ve been tracking along with the previous 5 sections, there should be no surprise what we will find in Section 6, which is verses 22-25.

Guess the thing he wants them to do? Yeah, there it is again in verse 22: observe these commands, love the Lord, walk in his ways, hold fast to him. Sound familiar? 

And why does he want them to love God and observe his commands?  Think he can find any new reasons by now?  Well, he does.  In verse 23, he says God will drive out the nations before them.  In verse 24, God will enlarge their territory. And in verse 25, no one will be able to stand against them.  God is speaking to the fear in their hearts.  They had people in their camp who did not think it was a good idea to enter the Promised Land because the nations already there were so powerful.  There were some in Israel who were afraid, thinking this Promised Land idea was actually a suicide mission.  So here is God saying, “Yeah, there are nations larger and stronger than you. But they aren’t large enough or strong enough to deal with me.”  This directly relates to verses 8-9.  Remember that interesting “so that” phrase in verse 8?  There God says, “Observe my commands, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land.”  Here in verses 22-25 he is saying something very similar.  “Observe my commands, and I will give you victory.”  God will be their strength!

How do we grow our love for God in the midst of our fear?  We stay true to him, securely establishing his ways in our lives, and in the lives of the next generation. When we are faithful to him, when we follow his ways, he addresses our fear by saying that he will be with us and strengthen us.  God is not promising to make life perfect, but he is saying that in the middle of our fear and struggle, we can trust in him.  As we learned recently in the 1 Peter series, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”   I’m not saying that casting our anxiety on God is easy.  I still struggle with it.  But what we clearly see in these teachings from both the Old and New Testament is that we can depend on him in the middle of our fear.  I suspect that it will take effort, including some failures, but as we keep striving to trust in him, we will grow in our ability to know what to do and how to do it.  Keep striving!

For me, one practice that has been so helpful in striving to cast my anxiety on God is the habit of contemplative prayer.  If you are not familiar with contemplative prayer, I would recommend a guide.  For me, that guide has been in the form of books and phone apps.  Here are some recommendations:

First of all two books I would recommend are:

  • Into The Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird
  • Be Silent. Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace With God Through Contemplative Prayer by Ed Czyewski

Also good are:

  • The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh
  • Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard
  • The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
  • Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom
  • Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggeman

As said above, I have noticed that I cannot just say internally, “I will practice contemplative prayer.”   I need a guide.  And for me, Czyewski’s suggestions of finding smartphone apps proved quite good. Here are the apps I use:

Calm.  A mentor recommended this. It attempts a non-sectarian approach to meditation, breathing, etc.  But you will hear from time to time, in the guided meditations, references to eastern religious thinkers.  I never found it to be anti-Christian, though.  I also found that I could adapt it to focus on Christ as needed.  The free version limits access.  One year I paid for a subscription and that was great.  If possible, I recommend that.  I think the recommendations about breathing are excellent, but rather than a Buddhist emptying of the mind approach to meditation, I simply replaced that a biblical filling of the mind kind of meditation on God’s word. See the Centering Prayer app below.  The 7 Days of Calm is a great place to start.

Sacred Space. This is a guided prayer app that combines meditation on Scripture and thoughtful questions about encountering the presence of God, based on the practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  I’ve been impressed.  But I’ve also found it is easy to skim through it super-fast.

Reimagining the Examen. This is another guided prayer app, specifically based on Ignatius’ Prayer of Examen.  It is topical, so each day a bit different, and yet always focuses on accountability for our thoughts and our relationship with the Lord.  More in depth than Sacred Space, I’ve found.  Maybe a good way to end the day.

Prayer Mate. A supplication app.  Great for organizing prayer requests.

Centering Prayer. Very simple app for connecting with the presence of God and listening for him.  Based on Centering Prayer, which I know some Christians find controversial.  Tim Keller, for example, in his book, Prayer, is really hesitant.  But I think his concerns are out of line.  As I have learned about contemplative prayer, I have started using this app daily and Calm less and less.

 

How to have loving diversity in a church family

9 Oct
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  Sometimes church families are like any other family, and that means we can butt heads.  We don’t always see eye to eye.  With the exception of ethnic diversity, my congregational is quite a diverse.  Young and old.  Male and Female.  Rich and poor.  Conservative and Progressive.  Introvert and extrovert.  That diversity is a beautiful thing, but it means we often disagree.

In this post we continue through 1st Peter looking at chapter 4, verses 7-11, and Peter is talking about how church families can handle this kind of diversity.

Peter, in verse 7, starts by mentioning that “the end of all things is near.”  What end?  We’ve been having blood moons in recent years, and people talk about how blood moons signal that the end is near. 

When we think about end times, our minds jump to ideas like a rapture where Christians suddenly disappear, maybe a time of tribulation, or a great war called Armageddon, but did Peter think of “the end of all things” like that?  What images did he have in mind? 

Almost certainly Peter is referring to the return of Jesus.  We read in Acts 1, that right after Jesus returned to his father in heaven, angels appeared and told the disciples that Jesus would come back. But when?  Peter says “the end is near”?  Did Peter think that Jesus was going to return in his lifetime? Probably. The early church seemed to think this.  It is mentioned more than once in the NT writings.

Think about that, Peter said this 2000 years ago.  So does that mean Peter is misinformed or misguided?  I don’t think so. It is best to understand “near” in the sense of “it can happen anytime”.  As Jesus himself said to his disciples, “no one knows the time of his return, so be ready at all times.”  Jesus himself said that the Kingdom of Heaven in near.  “Near” is best understood as something that can happen at anytime, rather than something that will happen soon.  We don’t know when it will happen, but it could happen anytime.  So we must be ready.

Peter goes on to say that one way we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return is to be “sensible”.  In the NIV that word is translated as “clearminded” which is to have understanding about practical matters and thus able to act sensibly.

Peter also says that we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return by being “self-controlled”, and the word Peter uses means the opposite of getting drunk.  But he is not just talking about alcohol. One scholar defines this as “to behave with restraint and moderation, not permitting excess in general.” It is an attitude that affects action.  When we say that someone is sober-minded, we don’t mean that they are simply not getting drunk.  We mean that they have an attitude of self-control about their lives, and that attitude leads to self-controlled actions.  Peter is not just saying “don’t get drunk” or “don’t get high”.  He is saying something much larger or broad.  Be a self-controlled person. 

When Peter talks about self-control he is saying that we organize our lives in such a way to prioritize the mission of God’s Kingdom.  How do we do use self-control to focus our lives on the mission of God’s Kingdom?  Peter says that we pray. We make time in our lives for spiritual practices so we can know God more, depend on him, and make him the focus of our lives.  But Peter is not suggesting a legalistic, rigid approach.

I remember that when our two oldest were babies and toddlers; there were stretches where Michelle and I did not go to Sunday School because it was so difficult to get ready, and to place them in childcare for long stretches. Likewise, a friend recently told me the story about a phase in their lives where they had to get up really early for work, 5am.  She wanted to have time alone with God, maybe reading the Bible and praying. But given that work schedule, it wasn’t going to happen even earlier.  Every now and then I hear that we should sacrifice sleep in order to spend time with God.  I’ve come to believe that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is get good sleep.  So my friend said her devotional times were on her days off.  That’s okay.

What I’m saying is this: following the way of Jesus is not a legalistic thing.  There are phases in life where it will look different, but what should always remain is the self-control to put his ways, his principles, the fruit of the Spirit, first.  We won’t be perfect in that.  But, that is the goal.  To put his ways first.

Again, Peter says, “Because the end is near, be self-controlled, so that you can pray.”  I wouldn’t have expected that.  Why prayer?  If the end is near, shouldn’t Peter be telling people to get out on the streets to invite more people to follow Jesus?  I think Peter has something else in mind.  A memory.

Could Peter be transporting us once again back to the night Jesus was arrested in the Garden, the night before he was crucified?  We know that night was the most impactful and vivid of Peter’s life.  He had many incredible moments with Jesus, but that night was etched in Peter’s mind.  Remember what happened that night at the beginning of their time in the Garden?  Jesus brought his disciples to the Garden.  That alone was not unusual.  It was a walk outside the city and Luke tells us that in Jesus’ final week, he went out there every night to pray.

Then in Matthew we read that he asked Peter, James and John to break away from the group and go a little further into the Garden.  He said to them that he was overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death.  Jesus was really going through it, the anxiety was intense.  And specifically asks Peter, James and john to stay there and keep watch.   This is Matthew 26:38.  Jesus went a little farther from the disciples, fell with his face to the ground and prayed that famous prayer, “Father…not my will, but yours be done.”  We don’t know how long Jesus prayed.  If it was just the text Matthew gives us, it is a very short prayer.   I suspect it was a good bit longer, because Jesus mentions “one hour in the next verse.”  I also think it was a longer prayer because of what we learn next.

Matthew records that Jesus takes a break from praying, and goes back to check on Peter, James and John, and what does he find?  They are asleep. He wakes them, and Matthew mentions that Jesus specifically speaks to Peter, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?…Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the body is weak.”  Then Jesus went back and prayed again, “Father…may your will be done.”  And again he checked on the disciples and again they were asleep. This time he didn’t wake them, instead returning to prayer, praying the same thing.  Finally Matthew says that he returned to the disciples a third time, waking them with, “Are you still sleeping and resting…Look, the hour is near.”  Just as he was saying those words, Judas, the betrayer, arrived with armed men to arrest Jesus.

I think Peter remembers that night quite well.  “The hour is near,” Jesus said.  The exact same words that Peter uses in 1 Peter 4.7!  “The end is near.”  Just as Jesus called Peter and the disciples to watch and pray, now Peter is calling Christians to be self-controlled and pray.

These are parallel situations.  Moments of intensity and ultimate destiny, and where Peter failed to be self-controlled and therefore did not pray, he wants something better for these Christians 30 years later. 

But again I ask, prayer?  Why prayer? Why then?

Because prayer roots us in the will and ways of God. Prayer says, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”  Prayer is a submission to God.  Prayer is act that shows that we depend on God.  In the middle of crisis, prayer is especially vital.  Normally in crisis, we want to take matters into our own hands and resolve it.  Prayer, however, hits the pause button and refocuses our lives on God, who is the true power.  But when we are freaked out it is hard to pray!  Maybe when we are so distracted, so anxious, our minds are out of control and we can’t pray.  I have definitely felt that in moments of high anxiety.

We can be so emotional that we just can’t settle our minds enough to prayer.  I believe this is where Peter is going with this. He remembered his own failure and wants these people to learn to depend on God during moments of crisis.

Or we become so distracted by the things of this world that we set prayer aside.  We are literally too busy to pray, we say.  But I know for myself that, while I can say that I am so busy, and I feel so busy, I sure have time to watch TV daily, check the news on my phone.  So let us make more space in our lives for prayer.

With this foundation of depending on God in prayers, Peter builds on that in verse 8, returning to a theme that we have seen multiple times in the letter: that the church family should love one another deeply.  He quotes an Old Testament verse, Proverbs 10:12, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

This also quoted by James, and there are echoes of it in the famous love chapter 1 Cor. 13.  What does it mean, that love covers over a multitude of sins?  If you love someone you have to accept their sinful choices and be okay with them?  This is very picturesque word. In Proverbs, it is the image of love as clothing that covers over sin.  Forgiveness is very much a related concept, and in fact the Hebrew word used in Proverbs 10:12 is in some circumstances translated “forgive”.

Love can overlook faults, it doesn’t seek revenge, forgives.  Love gives grace, and it doesn’t seek perfection.  You know how some personalities rub you the wrong way? Love says that we accept the people who are difficult for us. 

Remember that proverbs are not promises.  Proverbs are principles that are generally true.  They hold true in most cases, but not in all cases.  So when Peter quotes this proverb, he knows that.  He is not trying to say that love means we should somehow turn a blind eye to sin.  What he is saying is that in a church family, we need to be gracious and forgiving.

But how do we know when to cover over the sin?  I would submit that a big part of the answer to that question is how the sinning person responds.  If they are repentant and humble and seeking to change, then let love cover over their sin.

But if they are unrepentant, repeating their behavior, unwilling to submit to correction, then the most loving thing to do is hold them accountable and create boundaries for them.

This is hard.  We are not people who like boundaries.  We flee boundaries.  We want chances to start over, wipe the slate the clean, as if the past was gone. 

What, then, does repentance look like?  I want to bring up a word called penance.  We need to be people of penance.  Penance means that you work hard to show you are sorry, that you are repentant.  You are willing to do the hard work to heal a broken relationship, make real changes in your attitude, actions, and lifestyle choices.

Have any of you watched The Crown on Netflix?  The final episode of season 2 tells the story of John Profumo.  Ever heard of him?  Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War in the 1960s and he fell into a sexual scandal that led to his resignation. 

Politicians and sex scandals.  Sadly, we’ve heard that before many times, right?  I read an article by writer AJ Jacobs who tells the untold story of what happened next that the episode of The Crown didn’t tell.  And where political sex scandals are commonplace, the untold part of the Profumo story is unheard of.  Still today.  Though Profumo was well-connected and likely could have gotten a cushy job, he left public life and never fully returned.  You know what he did?  He began to volunteer at Toynbee Hall, a charity in London that seeks to alleviate poverty.  He started by doing menial work, and over the decades…decades!…he became a primary fundraiser for the charity.  He never sought office again.  For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.  He did this for fifty years.  That’s penance.  He knew he did wrong and made changes in his life that showed that.

Peter now goes on in verse 9 to say that our love for one another should demonstrate itself in being hospitable to one another without grumbling.

Look around your life: who needs hospitality?  What is hospitality?  The specific word that Peter uses is to be a friend to strangers, but notice how he also qualifies this word by adding “one another.”  Showing hospitality to strangers.  What strangers?

There are strangers around us.  Refugees, tourists, and people in our neighborhoods and schools who we don’t know.  I have been particularly convicted lately about the lack of ethnic diversity in my life.  That concerns me because my local school district reports that it is 1/3 comprised of people of color.

Do we have eyes and hearts open to practice hospitality to strangers?  We Christians should be leading the way in that!  We should be known for that!

But remember Peter’s qualifier, “one another”.  He is primarily talking about how these Christians practiced hospitality or friendship with one another. The reality is that some people in our church family are strangers to you, or some feel very different from you.

In Peter’s day, these Christians were very counter-culture.  They were following a religion that was very new and considered a cult.  As we saw last week in verse 4, these Christians were facing abuse because they were following Jesus. 

So they had to break down the norms.  They had to create family where there was none before.  One author I read said this, “In certain cultures that are strongly family-oriented, the bringing of strangers into a house may be somewhat shocking.  Yet Christians overcome these conventions because God’s love has made them into a single great family.”

There is nothing wrong with spending a lot of time with people you find enjoyable and are close with.  But it is also important to reach out to those who you are different than you, even people you butt heads with, and you still reach out to them anyway and Peter says to do so without grumbling. 

That’s family isn’t it?  There are those within our natural families that are easier for us to connect with than others.  There are those within natural families that we want to be with more than others.  But, still we are family, and still those who are feeling alone, and those who are not, need to try to reach out to each other.

Then offer your friendship and hospitality, and this is the kicker!, without grumbling. I get it, helping people can be a great joy, but it can also get to a point where it can be tough. It can go on a long time, and over time the hospitality wears us down and we can grumble. Some people are easier to offer hospitality to than others.

But Christians are people who are self-controlled and loving and thus go beyond the difficulty and awkwardness!  We are people who serve, and we serve some more, and we sacrifice.  We get this strength to press on in love for the strangers among us by making time in prayer and by making the way of Jesus our priority.

That’s exactly where Peter goes next in verse 10. He says that you have each received a gift, and you are to use it to serve one another as a good steward of the manifold grace of God. What gifts?  They are received gifts.  Received from who?  God.  God has blessed each one us with a gift. And how are we to use these gifts?  To serve others.

When the NIV says “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” Peter is using the word “steward”.  We are stewards of God’s grace.  Stewards are not owners.  We have been given a gift, but that doesn’t mean it is now our possession to do with what we want!  God is just giving it to us as a privilege and honor, and we are to use our gifts the way he would want them to be use. They are gifts of God’s grace, Peter says, gifts that are graciously given to us, and in various forms.

So in verse 11 Peter talks about the two main categories of gracious gifts that God gives us to steward.  Speaking gifts and serving gifts. Notice what kinds of gifts that Peter is not talking about.  Not the miraculous.  Not healing, not speaking in tongues, not prophesying. The gifts he is talking about are gifts that minister in a church family: speaking and serving

First of all the Speaking gifts.  What speaking?  Teaching, preaching. 

When we use the gift of teaching and preaching and speaking into someone’s life, Peter says, it is like an oracle of God.  Or speaking the very words of God.  Wow.  Does that mean if I speak, I am guaranteed to be speaking the words of God.  No.  But Peter is saying “do it AS one speaking,” meaning that we should see the weight and responsibility of it. The impact should be to glorify God, to encourage people in God’s direction.

Next are gifts of Serving. 

Who are you choosing to serve in our church family?  Who are you reaching out to?  Each of us should be ready and able to answer this.  Who are you serving?  Peter says, serve with the strength God provides, so that God may be praised through Christ.

Note that the focus on this is clearly God, for the use of both categories of gifts.  Peter wants the focus on God.   Not on ourselves.  Not on our comfort.  God and his ways are to be our priority.   As a pastor, I have the distinct blessing of being able to see so many ways that many in my church are reaching out, are serving, are sacrificial to others within this church family.  I am so grateful for that.  Keep at it.

So whether the person next to you in church is old or young, Democrat or Republican, male or female, and any other category, let us sacrificially love one another to keep our focus not on ourselves, but on God.

I want to end with this quote that my wife found in a Beth Moore study she’s doing.  In it she is speaking about discipleship, but I think you will see the connection.

“Discipleship involves a constant volleying between being apart and being a part. To pursue deeply satisfying intimacy with Christ, learning how to be apart from everyone else and alone with Him is a necessity. But discipleship also places a high premium on community and fellowship, on camaraderie and co-working. To know only how to be apart with Jesus but not a part of a holy partnership of believers leaves more than a deficit of human company…it also subtracts from our knowledge of Christ. Similarly, we are vastly less equipped in our effectiveness if we’re perpetual spiritual shut-ins. Isolation is not His way….One common cause of loneliness is the natural human tendency to limit our search for comrades to people who look or seem very much like us. We will miss what would have surely been some of our favorite people on earth if we don’t look beyond our mirror image in age, marital status, background, and personality.”

So we need to be working on our priority relationship with Jesus.  Time with him in prayer and time growing ourselves in HIS ways is so important.  From that foundation, then, we take those things we are learning, and we work them out with each other in our church family. So let’s be somber-minded and self-controlled as we focus on making his ways our priority.

How Distracted I Was From God (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 2)

19 Apr

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On January 1st, I started a sabbatical daily log.  On that day I wrote three paragraphs about what was happening in the life of the Kime Family, and mixed in there were these five words:

“I deactivated my Facebook account.”

For those of you who use Facebook, deactivating your account might feel like a big deal.  Especially if you use it a lot, like I did.

For those of you who don’t have Facebook, or rarely use it, you might be thinking, “no big deal.”

I urge you all to stay with me here.  Because there is more to the story.  The next part of the story happened this week.

I was at the pet store this week.  Buying dog food.  Row after row of choices…for my dog.  When we got him, he had been at the Humane League because his previous owners couldn’t care for him.  He was sick from drinking pond water on their property.  So the Humane League put him on special dog food for “Sensitive Digestion”.  In other words, my dog is a vegetarian, and there is dog food for that.

No surprise, though.  That is just like nearly any store, for nearly any product; we live in a society with so many choices.

We have been trained up from birth to be consumers.  We have been told by our society that we should have a lot of choices, that we should get to pick between 50 kinds of chips, or cars, or anything.  And so we have grown up under the influence of Consumerism, what Webster’s defines as “the theory that a greater progressive consumption of goods is beneficial.”

This applies to all of us: we are consumers in a consumerist society. We want our choices, we want to buy things, and when we use them up, we want more and better things.  Our approach to media is no different: we consume media.

We live in a media-soaked world.  I’m not just talking about social media, but also television, radio (especially talk radio), podcasts, sports, movies, publishing, music, and advertising.  Think about how much media you are exposed to in one day’s time.  Seriously, count it up.  How many hours of media do you consume every day?

In my own family, there can be some sort of screen/media, whether it is social media, Xbox, TV shows, Netflix, podcast, playing nearly all waking hours. There are times when we are watching TV on one big screen, working on our laptops with smaller screens, and checking our phones at the same time!

So when I think about the fact that I deactivated my Facebook account on January 1st, it is curious to me that in my sabbatical journal, all I said was those five words, “I deactivated my Facebook account.”

Why is that curious?  Because at the time, it felt like a bigger deal.  I thought there would be sirens or explosions or something.  But there was nothing.  I worried it would negatively affect my life.  But as far as I can tell, not having Facebook in my life, has not affected me negatively at all.  That surprised me.

Why?  Well, I had spent a lot of time on Facebook over the years.  I started in 2008, I think.  Over ten years, all the hours and hours reading posts, liking, sharing, and commenting.  Being in the know.  Posting, wanting people to like my posts, to share my posts.  Checking.  Updating.  Checking again.

Simply put, Facebook was a big part of my life.

That’s why deactivating it felt emotional.  Like I was cutting off something.  I would no longer be in the know.  But I had a sense that I needed to do this for sabbatical, so I did it.

I have been off Facebook for three and a half months, and I don’t think I’m going back.  Yeah, I miss out on things.  But if there is something important, Michelle lets me know. Just last week she told me about friends expecting a baby! She found out on Facebook. But since I deactivated my account, there have been surprisingly few important things that I missed. Instead I feel free.  More on that later in this post.

I feel free from Facebook, but there is more consumerism in my life than just Facebook.

As I looked over my sabbatical daily log, I found another trend. Last week I told you how the first trend in my sabbatical was the month of January as filled with comments about stress and anxiety.  The second thing that filled that first month was commentary about distraction.

I realized that I was a consumer of distraction.  Social media was only one way I was distracted.  How about you?  Are you a consumer of distraction?  And distraction from what?

A few days after I deactivated my Facebook account, I wrote this:

“I think right now, at this early phase of the sabbatical, I am realizing, painfully, how much distraction I have had in my life.  My life has been drowning in distraction. So as I think about sabbatical, what I have found thus far, in the brief moments I have removed distraction, is that I am alone with myself. And I can’t say that I like it.”

In those early days and weeks of sabbatical, once I had cleared away some distraction in my life, guess what I found?  I found a person with anxiety, a bit too cranky, a person looking for a distraction when I really needed to just be present for my family, or be alone with myself and my God.  All that anxiety I talked about last week?  I would use social media, TV, and phone games to try to distract myself from the anxiety.

I was surprised to learn that social media might have made it worse!

One report in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first nationally representative study exploring the link between social media use and depression. It looked at close to 2,000 people.

Each participant took an established depression assessment tool and answered questionnaires on social media use. This included the 11 most used platforms at the time: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Vine.

You know what the study found? The more time someone uses social media, the more likely that person is to be depressed.

Another study said that “all social media platforms use something called intermittent variable rewards.

“Imagine a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable means you might win, or you might not. In the same way, you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you’ve won.

“What you are winning on social media?  A new follower, a comment, someone liking what you posted.  And what happens, the researchers found, is that you become more discouraged and depressed when people don’t give you the likes.  Just like slot machines, when it comes to getting rewards out of social media, you often lose more than you win.”

So, for me, what started out as a good way to connect with the kids in the youth group (that’s when I activated and started my FB account, when we were youth pastors here and interacting with the kids in youth group), became too much of a regular part of my day and world. I could scroll through the news feed endlessly. To justify that use of time, I would say that I was I was learning about how things are going with people.  But as I look back on it, I was mostly distracted.

I have no doubt that social media, screen time, talk radio, reading fiction books, or whatever is a distraction for you, is not all bad.  But it can become a major distraction.  What is a healthy balance to use of media?

That is a question each person needs to answer for themselves.  And it starts with simply admitting that you can be distracted.  For me, it was a battle in my mind.  I didn’t want to admit that I was so distracted by social media and phone games.

Ask yourself this: how distracted are you? If you are spending more time watching TV than you do with your family or with God, then perhaps that is a yellow flag for you.  Think about how much time you read books, listen to talk radio, watch movies and Netflix.  Are you giving loads of time to those things, but little to God?  That might be a yellow flag to investigate.

When we do a time study of our lives, will we find that we have been distracted from spending time with God and from spending time with the important people in our lives?

We are consumers who can very readily seek to satisfy the desires of our hearts, our longings, our need for satisfaction through distractions like social media, through sports, through television, through phone games, and we will find that those outlets do not satisfy.  There is one place to find the satisfaction we crave: in the presence of the Lord.

Do you ever feel that desire to be in the presence of the Lord, but it seems impossible or irrational? If we hear ourselves saying, or if we think to ourselves, that we feel distant from God, or that we don’t hear God speak, is it because we are so distracted?

During sabbatical, I read the book Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom, and here is a quote that hit me between the eyes, “God could complain about us a great deal more than we about him.  We complain that he does not make himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door, and we answer, “I am busy, I am sorry.” Or we do not answer at all because we do not hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain about the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than he ever is.”

When I thought about my life, I knew Bloom was describing me.  The way I treated God would have been a relationship-killer if it was a human.  Imagine that was how you treated your spouse, or your best friend.  Imagine you gave them only 5, 10, or 15 minutes each day, and during that short time, all you did was spout off a list of things you wanted them to do.  When you were done with your list, you said goodbye, and you didn’t talk with them again until you read a new list again the next day, and the next, and the next.  During any of these brief daily meetings you did not ask how they were doing, or listen to what they had to say.  How would that work out for your relationship?  It will kill that relationship.  And yet, Bloom says, that is how we can treat God, and have the gall to blame him for not talking to us.  I don’t know if that describes you. It sure did me.

But hear this amazing good news: Because of what Jesus did, through his death and resurrection, we can have access to God our father.  The God of the universe wants to be with us!  Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden walking and talking with God.  Think of the Prodigal Son returning home and his father wrapping his arms around his son in a huge welcoming hug.  These are pictures of what God wants.  And we can avail ourselves of that. We can spend time with him!

In Hebrews we read that Jesus is our great high priest who opened the door for us to have access to God.  That is good news!

In James we read “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” That is good news!

What do you need to do about the distraction in your life?  What do you need to do to spend time in God’s presence?  I invite you to take action.  For me, Facebook had to go.  Games on my phone had to go.  More distraction still might need to go.  I had to learn about listening prayer, and I had to open up space in my life to make room for it.

Another article I found described a recent experiment where people voluntarily opened space in their lives. “The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.

Conclusion: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.”

The author then shared numerous examples of how people’s lives, freed from distraction, improved:

–> An engineer realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).

–> A writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.

–>  A retired stockbroker began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.

–> A PhD candidate described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”

–> A government worker replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the print edition of a newspaper. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.

Look at the amazing thing that happened when people removed distraction, and opened space in their lives!  Imagine what could happen if we do the same for God?

Maybe you’re not a social media person, will consider a break from TV?  Author Tim Willard gives the following advice:

First, you must be devoted to getting off your couch and turning the TV off. That’s step one. Stop trolling social media for people talking about the next new great show, ranting about how much they hate basically everything they don’t agree with.

It’s all digital noise, literally. Then shut off your TV for a year. See how that grabs you. One thing I switched up, I watercolor paint with my daughters every single night.

“But Tim, I don’t paint.” Excellent! Neither do I! Been afraid to my whole life. So, I got some good paints, good brushes, good paper, and I’m learning. I’ve missed maybe four days since the first of the year. The girls love it. We play classical music, light some incense, and laugh and compare paintings.

It’s the best parenting move I’ve done yet, I think.

I don’t watch television as it is. But this year, I’m not watching any programming. I stopped watching news channels and ordered a paper. It’s tough, and I’ve had to sacrifice, but it’s been so worth it. Ask my daughters.

Get some ideas, get devoted, and start doing things with real people, with your real hands. Make, create, mess up. It’s quite liberating.

Second, Willard says, Get radical and don’t look at your phone as soon as you roll out of bed. Let your first thirty minutes be making tea or coffee and reading something, like, I don’t know, a real Bible, or devotional, or something inspiring. Perhaps usually something by King David or that murderous chap, Paul.

I guarantee that if you attempt this, it will begin to rewire your brain. It will change your rhythm. And you’ll fight it at first. You’ll think you need to check the weather, or just hold your phone like “my precious.” But you don’t. Just be alive. Walk outside. And breathe deep the real analog world.

Third, Take a walk at lunch, and listen. What do you hear? Probably that’s the sounds of God rolling into your ears.

Fourth, listen to music.  Something quiet. Something that ministers to your frazzled spirit. I listen to Bach while I’m grabbing something to read. But most mornings, it’s just me, my tea, my Moleskine and the quiet blue morning.

You should read Tim’s whole article. There’s much more great advice.

What is one way you can remove distraction in your life today?  Then, and this is the exciting part, how will you use your freedom?  Be creative! Include God!

My life with anxiety and panic (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 1)

13 Apr

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A week before my sabbatical began, we went to see Star Wars.  It has become a family tradition these past three years.  My dad’s birthday is December 29th, and so he takes my brother, sister, me and our kids to see the movie together.  There were 14-15 of us this year!  I love being with my family, and I was so excited for the movie.  I love Star Wars.  Finally we were going to learn more about Luke Skywalker, and the movie was directed by a guy whose previous work I really like.  It was going to be great.

Except that it didn’t turn out great.  I’m not referring to the movie.  The movie was awesome.  I’m talking about me.  Halfway through the movie, sitting between my dad and sister, I started feeling feverish, shaking and sweating profusely.  I wondered to myself if my dad and sister could notice.  I really hoped they did not notice.  I was dripping sweat, feeling like I could vomit.  I didn’t want them to know.

After 10-15 minutes of this, I got up and walked out to use the restroom, wipe my face, and get a drink.  It helped, but back in my seat, I started shaking and sweating again, and couldn’t focus on the movie. I closed my eyes and tried breathing slowly.  I had grabbed some paper towels in the bathroom, so that helped with the sweating.  I don’t think I fully stopped shaking until hours later at home.

Was it the flu?  A fever?  Nope.

It was anxiety, panic.  Along with the physical symptoms I described, there was a swirling spiral of negative thoughts:  “Something is deeply wrong with me.  Am I about to have a heart attack?  Is this it? Am I going to die?”

If you’re thinking, “What in the world is he talking about?,” let me explain.  I am telling you that I struggle with anxiety and stress, and sometimes it results in panic attacks.  I have mentioned it only the slightest bit over the last few years.  Just a hint in a sermon or two.  But today I am telling the whole story.  Anxiety has been a very real part of my life since the summer of 2015. I’m telling you about it today because anxiety was the defining feature of my first month of sabbatical. I felt it was time to talk about it.

It is one of those parts of life that I am never quite sure if and when and how to talk about it.  It’s deeply personal, and Michelle and I have had to give a lot of thought and prayer into when would be the right time.  From the beginning of my struggle in 2015 I made our church leaders aware, as well as some close friends and long-term confidantes.  But quite frankly we weren’t sure how to talk about it in a public way because my anxiety stems from my role as pastor.  I don’t want to come across as accusatory to the church.  I also don’t want to come across as trying to start a pity party or a “poor me” article.  Michelle and I knew what we signed up for.  Pastoral ministry is fraught with intense situations, and often ones in which the pastor and his family are in the cross-hairs. I found the following stats:

  • 75% of pastors report being extremely or highly stressed.
  • 90% are fatigued and worn out every week
  • 50% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner every month
  • 80% will not be in ministry after 10 years
  • 70% are constantly fighting depression

We also get to experience many joys in being a pastor, pastor’s wife, and pastoral family.  It is a unique role, where you are uniquely involved in people’s lives.  The joy, the happiness, and brokenness, the pain.  All of it.

So in order to avoid coming across as accusatory or like I wanted a pity party, we felt it best not to share publicly.  Until now.  We decided that now is the time to share this for a few reasons. First, I hope I have communicated clearly enough that you already know that I am not perfect, but we felt it was time for you to know this particular struggle. Pastors are people too. Second, for those of you who also struggle with mental illness, with stress, anxiety, depression, and the like, we want you to know that there is hope!

So let’s go back a few years.  Really I need to go back a lot further than that.  Anxiousness and worry is a bit of a family trait.  I come by it somewhat genetically, and I’ve always, from a little child, had struggles with worrying, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and such.  If a relationship in my life was not going well, I took it hard.  In the first half of 2015 there were multiple very difficult multiple-year situations in the church that came to a head.  Our Leadership Team handled them with grace and truth and was amazing, and by June 2015 those situations were resolved.

Then there was the trip to Kenya, which was wonderful.  But as leader, I carried the weight of responsibility, and nearing the end of the trip, as we rode in the bus from Kijabe where Lamar & Janice live and work, headed to the capital city of Nairobi, I had a brief and less intense attack.  I had no idea what was going on, and figured it was motion sickness, or something with altitude change.

In the two weeks after the Kenya trip, I spent loads of time and energy trying to complete all the loan paperwork to get our eldest son money to go to college, another loan for a laptop, and my stress levels had only increased.  One morning, after working out, I dropped our middle son off at soccer practice, and started having pains in my chest.

That did me in.  Pretty much from that day mid-August 2015 for the following two months, I went through a nonstop stress-induced agony.  I couldn’t stop shaking, and I had tightness and pain in my chest.  The chest pains scared me, and the fear kicked off even more anxiety.  It was a vicious cycle.  I saw my doctor, and he ordered tests.  A plethora of medical tests all came up clear.  My doctor also prescribed Xanax, and it was a bit helpful, but the anxiety continued.

After a few weeks, my doc suggested a maintenance med for anxiety, Lexapro.  I started on it, and initially things got worse.  Lexapro caused was a weird burning sensation in my thigh.  I couldn’t sleep for the better part of three nights.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life.  I called the doc in a panic. He said press on, my body was just get used to the medication.  I had started counseling with my seminary prof, and I’ll never forget that first session when I was a mess, crying in his office.

But slowly my body got used to the Lexapro, and little by little, week by week, my anxiety subsided.  I could sleep again.  From time to time the pains continued, and they would get me scared.  I learned to fight those fears.  My heart was fine. The medical tests proved I was fine.  I was just stressed out.  Very stressed out.  And that wasn’t good.

So I continued counseling which was amazing. I learned so much.  I went back to working out after taking a month off.  I started reading books my counselor recommended to learn coping techniques.

Over the next 18 months I improved enough that in the Spring of 2017 I saw my doc again, and we agreed that I could go off Lexapro.  I started doing a gradual draw-down, and by summer I finished taking medication.  But really, while on the meds I had hardly any side effects.  So I want you to hear me clearly on this: for those struggling with mental illness, meds can be a lifesaver.  They were for me, and I would go back on them if needed.

Back to December 2017 at Penn Cinema, watching Star Wars.  That panic attack was a bit of shocker.  It wasn’t the first.  I’ve had a handful of them.  Though it was the strongest one since the initial instances in the summer of 2015.  I doubt it will be the last one.  I’ve learned I can’t totally predict when I will have an anxiety attack. And yet, that is not totally true. If I’m willing to give it some thought, I can read the signs.  For example, in the last month before sabbatical, I had a number of stressors.  Prep for sabbatical was the big one.  I wanted sabbatical to go really well for Faith Church.  So I was nervous about going on sabbatical.  That was on top of the regular, day in and day stressors of what being a pastor entails.

Take the intensity of Star Wars, combined with my excitement about it, laid on top of those work stressors, and there you have the warning signs.  That said, it doesn’t fully make sense to me why an anxiety attack would hit right then.  And it makes me angry because it ruined the movie.   But, one thing I have learned is that when the anxiety comes out it is rarely about what is actually happening when it appears. It has been building, and I have not been pausing and working through stress as it occurs, and then it just erupts. My body is saying to me “enough!”

A few days after the movie, sabbatical started. As I read through my sabbatical journal this in preparation for this sermon, I was blown away by how much I mentioned stress and anxiety throughout the month of January.  If you thought that I went on sabbatical January 1st and was able to have a sigh of relief and peace, you were wrong.  My stress and anxiety got worse when sabbatical started.

Here is what I wrote on January 14th: “I have no reason to feel anxiety, stress, shaking, nervousness.  And yet it is there.  I don’t know what it is like for a person going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.  But I’ve seen the dramatic depictions on TV or movies, and I’ve read accounts in books.  No doubt those are different kinds of withdrawal than what I am experiencing.  But I feel something similar.”

I didn’t have another panic attack during those first two weeks, but I had a heightened level of anxiety and stress, a shakiness and nervousness that lingered pretty much the whole time.  And then something eye-opening happened.

We had our small group on Friday January 12.  I felt anxiety most of the day Friday, but as our friends walked in the house, and we sat around our table, the anxiety and tightness in my chest and arm all but dissipated.  Inwardly I recognized it right away and thought, “Woah…what just happened?” You might think it was good that I found peace, and it was.  But to have two straight weeks of stress and anxiousness, and then in a matter of minutes have it be gone?  It was weird.  What was happening to me?

The thought came to mind that in those first few weeks of sabbatical I had been experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.  Actual physical symptoms of withdrawal.  Like I was in a kind of detox.  It was so interesting that my symptoms just about disappeared during Care Group.  Why?

I think it is a combination of things.  First, I think Care Group was a distraction from my thoughts, from being with myself.  During Care Group I am focused on other people, on the conversation, on the study.  And that is okay.  Those are good things. I don’t think all distractions are bad.  And it might not even be fair to call it a distraction.  Care Group is an activity that is healthy.

Second, it could be that Care Group was a brief return to my “job”.  Like a drug addict getting a fix.  It was eerie how fast it happened that night.

What was going on inside me during those first few weeks?  I call it “feeling stressy” or “anxious”, but it is not just a typical kind of feeling stress on anxiety.  Instead it is the downward spiral of thoughts that gets worse and worse.  In the two weeks prior I had allowed too much self-focus can turn to wallowing. It’s good to know what’s going on in my life, but not healthy to be so self-focused.  Care Group, in part, turned my thoughts outward.

Care Group didn’t cure me.  The stress came right back the next day.  As the month of January went on, I had much time to reflect on my anxiety.  What I have learned is that I have situational anxiety.  Meaning, if I have nothing stressful going on in my life, I generally feel at peace.  But if I have stress going on, my body now reacts, and quickly.

The point, then, is learning how to deal with stress in a way that is faithful to God.  There are many ways to deal with stress.  Not all of them are faithful.  Our world is full of unhealthy and sometimes destructive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.  You and I know them and can list them.

For me, I would often distract myself with my phone.  Social media.  Games.  I started sabbatical, though, knowing I needed to bring my struggle with anxiety before God in a new way.   Looking back over the last few years, I can see an arc of progress, healing and hope.  But I also knew that things could be way better.

So on January 1st, I got rid of all the games, and I deactivated my Facebook account.  I had no sermon to write, no meetings, no emails, no visits, no phone calls, no office to get away to.  I had nothing distracting me.  For the first time in a long time, I was alone with myself, my family and God, and my stress.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have had a practice of personal devotions, studying scripture, and spending time in prayer.  So why did experience God in a new way during sabbatical?  What was new was that everything else I was using to distract myself from stress and anxiety was gone.  I was feeling it all the time, and that intensified the battle in my mind.  So I started reading and practicing new prayer disciplines.  Trying to sit more in God’s presence and listen.  A friend from church gave me the book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An anxious evangelical finds peace with God through contemplative prayer, which gave some very solid advice.  I read The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a world of Distraction, which was so helpful.

Then at on my first three-day personal retreat Twin Pines I had the first deep opportunity to learn and practice the presence of God in a more sustained way.  That retreat was at the end of the first month of sabbatical, and it was the turning point.  I could literally feel the stress subside as I turned the corner and drove onto Twin Pine’s campus.  I realized I should have been doing personal retreats with God for years.  I had talked about doing them, and I never did.

As a result, I can tell you that the second and third months of sabbatical were very different from the first.

Consider with me Philippians 4:6-7 where Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You read a verse like that and it is easy to think that anxiety is wrong.  Sinful.  Did Paul mean that true Christians won’t struggle with anxiety?  And if we do struggle with anxiety then are we bad followers of Jesus who don’t trust in him?  What Christian hasn’t had at least a little bit of anxiety, stress, worry?  Maybe the rare person?

For many years I had a mindset that Christians should not struggle with anxiety to the point of taking meds or seeing a counselor.  There is within Christian circles an unwritten expectation that we have to put on a smile and give a false expression that things are okay.  No doubt, as Christians we are called to rejoice, be joyful, glad.  But does that mean we should never feel anxiety?

There have been Christians through the ages that have committed the heresy of docetism, denying the humanity of Christ, saying that his perfection meant that that he didn’t feel pain, didn’t have stress or anxiety.  That is heresy.

Consider Hebrews 2:14-17 which teaches that Jesus “…shared in [our] humanity…” and that “he had to be made like [us], fully human in every way…” and that “[b]ecause he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I would submit to you that that was one reason Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane right before he was arrested was purposefully included in the Bible to show us in very clear terms that he too went through anxiety and stress.

Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t mean, therefore, that the presence of anxiety and stress and worry in your life means that you are sinful.  Jesus had it in his life too.  We certainly saw him frustrated with people and showing that emotion, and stress usually comes with frustration. Instead Philippians 4:6-7 is a wonderful teaching for those in the middle of anxiety, that there is hope, that we can do something about it.  We should take our concerns to the Lord, with thanksgiving, and seek him for peace.

Peter says something very similar in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast your cares on him, because he cares for you.”

When you lose a loved one, for example, you will still feel grief and anxiety. It doesn’t mean that you are not a true Christian or a spiritual person.  Take your situation to the Lord and seek peace in him.

Another wonderful teaching is James 1 which says, “consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds”.  Consider it joy?  I hate hard times.  I want them to stop.  Why would I ever consider them joy?  Well, James is saying, in other words, use your mind to control your emotions.  That is nearly identical to a therapeutic method called CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically it can be summarized as “Tell yourself the truth.”

That one is hard for me.  Anxiety is a battle in my mind.  Just ask Michelle; she’s needed to be a teller of truth in this area to me for most of our marriage, and certainly for our 15 years here at Faith Church. I have learned, though, that telling ourselves the truth is possible.

Psalm 46:10 is another classic reminder of how to tell ourselves the truth: “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist tells us that we can trust in God.  Sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and reflect on that.  In the midst of stress and anxiety, we tend to be very frantic and forgetful of reality.  But to be still means that we need to sit with God.  It takes time, it takes effort and it takes work to bestill before God and to tell ourselves the truth of who he is and what he has done.

In conclusion, let me say that I am not perfect.  I am not healed.

Sabbatical didn’t cure me.  That wasn’t the purpose of sabbatical.  But I do think I learned a lot.  In particular that I need to “be still and know that God is God” on a regular basis.  I need to get away and spend time with God.  My two personal retreats at Twin Pines were so good.  For years I said that I needed to do that, but never took it seriously.  Now I plan to take a personal retreat at Twin Pines every six months.

I also learned that I need to practice prayer disciplines of sitting before God daily, still, quiet, listening.  I certainly was a pastor who prayed.  But I need to become a pastor, a person, who is praying differently. For sabbatical I got rid of all social media and games on my phone to rid myself of those distractions.  I am committed to not bringing them back, and to replacing that time with more prayer, especially listening prayer.

Another helpful practice is to learn about anxiety. I started reading the book The End of Worry, and I encourage you to do the same.  Learn about stress and anxiety.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, exercise!  God made us to move!  And when we move, it has scientifically proven emotional benefits.

Finally, if you are feeling like you are losing the battle with anxiety and stress, please talk it over with your doctor, about the possibility of medicine as part of the solution.   Get in touch with professional counselors.  Some of you may need to change your view on the importance of medicine and counseling.  And, sit with our God.  Sit with Jesus.  Learn to rest in Him in a new way.

So, I am back…and there will be and there will be more difficult and stressful situations, as ministry is hard. But I feel excited about what God has taught me about this battle and I am excited to jump back in with these new habits and lessons He has graciously taught me. Thus I invite you to join me in addressing stress and anxiety in your life.